Equal Opportunities for All: New Civil Rights Guidance for Charter Schools

The charter school sector is based on a simple compact: In exchange for greater autonomy in its operations, a charter school bears greater accountability for the academic progress of its students. The goal is to create environments that foster innovative and impactful approaches to teaching and learning in the classroom, and ultimately, to scale those effective approaches.

As an Administration, we are committed to supporting high-quality schools for our students, particularly for those who are most disadvantaged. President Obama’s recent proclamation regarding National Charter School Week commended the role charter schools play in advancing opportunity. While they are still relatively few in number (comprising about 6% of public schools in the U.S.), charter schools are often a major focal point of community debate regarding how best to serve our neediest students. Regardless of the specifics of those debates, charter schools are obligated to adhere to federal civil rights laws.

Today, the Department released new guidance (en español) to emphasize that the federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in education on the basis of race, color, and national origin; sex; and disability apply to all public schools — including charter schools. Although these laws extend to all operations of a charter school, including recruiting, academics, educational services and testing, school climate (including prevention of harassment), athletics and other nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities, and accessible buildings and technology, this guidance focuses on admissions, educational services to children with disabilities and English learners, and disciplinary measures.

Issuing this guidance is not intended to suggest charter schools are not in compliance with federal civil rights laws. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of the growing prevalence and comparative youth of many charter schools. The entire charter school sector is little more than 20 years old, and more than a quarter of the nation’s charter schools are less than four years old.

We share charter schools’ commitment to addressing pressing civil rights issues, and want to ensure that school operators have clear guidance regarding their obligations under federal civil rights laws. Our expectation is that charter schools will, in their role as innovators, continue to find new and more effective ways to: advance educational equity and serve educationally disadvantaged students (including students with disabilities and English learners); create and maintain racially diverse student bodies; and establish positive school climates that do not rely on exclusionary school discipline to maintain safe and orderly classrooms.

We know charter schools can accomplish these important goals. Through our work in supporting charter schools and evaluating civil rights compliance, we’ve seen so many charter schools achieve these successes. We also know this from personal experience, including Catherine’s experience as a founding family and then board member of a new charter middle school serving a neighborhood that had struggled for many years with no middle school for its kids, ultimately delivering a high-performing and racially and socioeconomically diverse school. We believe in the success of the model and the value of delivering our federal civil rights promises in these and all schools.

We hope that the guidance issued today will help enhance the role charter schools can play in advancing equal educational opportunities for all students.

Nadya Chinoy Dabby is the Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement; Catherine E. Lhamon is the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.